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By Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief San Francisco Fire Department 1938

Chapter VIII
Notable Horses


Sooner or later, whenever there was any talk about the firehorses, someone would always mention Mush. For many years Mush and his two handsome gray team mates, Pup and Bob, were attached to Engine Company No. 2 on Bush Street, near the old California Theatre.

These three horses were the pick of the Department.  They were massive fellows with beautifully formed muscles bulging under heavy, velveting skin—enormous and prepossessing, but easy-moving, quick and free.  An ideal team, three times prize winners and perfectly matched in color.  The engine they drew was the last word in apparatus construction and set them off advantageously.  It shone with more than the ordinary adornment of nickel and silver and was also a prize winner, having been awarded first prize at the Chicago World's Fair.

By reason of his cleverness an unusual intelligence Mush easily took the lead over his team mates.  His exploits were known to every member of the department and too many other people not ordinarily interested in the career or life of a firehorse.

This big gray was affectionate and playful and for all his massive proportions was as light and gentle in his movements as a kitten.  He was a great favorite with the theatrical folk who played at the nearby California Theatre, and very frequently shared with them the honors of write ups and reviews.  About the firehouse, he was as mischievous as a young monkey and there is no end to the tricks the old timers tell on him.

It was next to impossible to keep Mush in his stall or between the props that passed for stalls in the firehouse, unless he chose to stay there.  When the men of the company were near at hand Mush would stand meekly at his station, the picture of innocence and docility.  His roving, watchful eyes alone betrayed that he was open to any opportunity that might be offered for a frolic or some harmless fun.

When left for a few minutes to his own devices, Mush would immediately go about on a tour of inspection and investigation which usually ended in mischief.  With consummate cunning he could walk on the center and flat of his hoofs, at such times putting them down carefully and softly.  Although an unusually heavy horse, he often succeeded in moving about without so much as a sound.  The first inkling of his prowling would be the crash of some object falling which his prying nose had dislodged, or maybe the added disturbance evidenced by one or another of his team mates whom he delighted in teasing.

One of Mush's favorite pranks was to catch one of the firemen quietly sitting in a chair.  Stealing up noiselessly behind him, he would muzzle him vigorously in the face before the man was aware of his presence or could ward of the intruder.  Mush always seemed to show a keen delight and satisfaction in the startled reaction and discomfort this produced.

Game to the core was Mush.  The gamest horse, they said, that the Department had ever known, and yet the very thing that proved his gameness nearly caused his disgrace, and it also proved to be the count against him that for a time was taken to indicate that he was, of all things most detested, a quitter.

It came about through his loyalty, faithfulness and conscientiousness to duty, and it was the hardest test that a game horse was ever put to.  Always it seemed that Mush's greatest pride was to be first at a fire and never was there a more willing worker than he when the clang of the bell called Engine No. 2 into action.

One night there was a fire in the Italian quarter.  It was a big tenement over near the foot of Powell Street and just outside of Mush's district.  One and two alarms rang in without disturbing the men and horses, but at the third alarm, which was the general call for aid, the quiet house was transformed into a bedlam of noise and excitement.

Horses and men sprang to their places simultaneously; collars were fastened, reins were snapped, doors slammed open and in a moment the apparatus was off and on its way with Mush, as usual, straining at the collar with a vim that made his teammates struggle to keep up.

The men knew that the third alarm was a serious matter, while to the horses the red glare of the horizon had a definite meaning.  Who could say that Mush, Pup and Bob were not well aware that the need was a desperate one?  In any event, they raced over the hills, across car tracks and around corners, with a power and energy that made the heavy engine behind them bound over the cobblestones like a bundle of fleece.  Down a steep grade, a sharp swerve to one side of the slippery street, and like a flash the damage was done.  Mush was down but an instant.  He regained his feet in a single bound and finished the run as though nothing had happened.

When they returned from the fire some hours later, his driver noticed that Mush's head hung lower than usual and he dragged his hoofs like his feet were leaden, but he probably attributed it to the fact that the horse was tired and in this way Mush's fall was passed over and soon forgotten and no one was aware of his injury.

After that Mush was a different horse, although he had not entirely lost his old desire for action.  Each alarm found him springing into place and ready with all his old time eagerness and energy to make the run, but on the street with the heavy engine behind him his feet would refuse to carry him along fast enough.  His head would go down and Mush, who had never been known to shirk, would be a drag on his mates.  This went on for several months and Mush began to give up entirely when coming back from a run and would have to be taken to the Department stables for attention.  At such times the wise Mush would stand listening until he heard the clattering hoofs of the relief horse approaching, then by whinnying restlessness and other signs that the firemen knew, he would signify his eagerness to go to the stables.

There the veterinarian, who examined Mush, found his heart badly affected by the strain and reported it to the Superintendent of the stables. He also declared that Mush would never be the same horse again, and if he were urged on to heavy work, he might drop dead at any moment.  Mush did drop dead in his stall without a struggle of "tired heart" while convalescing in the Department stables a few days later. We all felt about him as Shakespeare said of Julius Caesar: "Then burst his mighty heart—his last race was run."

An autopsy was held and the real cause of Mush's failure to keep his trust was found to be a dilation of the heart caused by an excess strain.  Then it was that Mush was vindicated and his gameness, even in the face of suffering and pain, was reestablished beyond any dispute.

As sort of tribute to his memory and to preserve a tangible reminder of his popularity and heroism on numerous occasions, the long, silvery white tail, which had been his greatest mark of beauty, was saved and had you dropped in casually at the old firehouse at 412 Bush Street on any quiet morning before the Fire of 1906, you might have seen it in a glass case on the wall and, perhaps, you might even have persuaded driver John Hayden to tell you the story of Mush.

Speaking of Engine No. 2 reminds me of a man who arrived in San Francisco about the year 1902 who was nicknamed "The Wandered".  He was a wealthy gambler and race horse owner and lived at a fashionable hotel in the vicinity of Bush and Montgomery Streets.  He was well known by many of the firemen as he spent quite a lot of time at Engine No. 2's headquarters.  His fondness for horses and his interest in them was the beginning of an association which lasted for years and when Dame Fortune had turned her back on him, it was at the firehouse he found understanding and a supply for his unfortunate needs.

Like most gamblers and sporting men, he lost his fortune in time and came to depend upon charity, so whenever he made the rounds of the firehouses, his old friends did not forget what a good fellow he had been when he had money and they always gave him a sincere and hearty welcome, remembering the adage "never to forget a friend."  Although the Wanderer in later years was sadly addicted to liquor, he never lost his love of the horses.  For years, Bill, a beautiful sorrel horse, was his favorite.  Bill knew and liked the Wanderer and to our great surprise, after the lean times had come upon the Wanderer, we found him in the early hours of one morning lying cuddled up alongside of Bill in his stall fast asleep.

No one paid any attention to the Wanderer when he came into the firehouse, but when the watchman found him sleeping beside Bill, he became alarmed.  Bill was awake and did not move.  All his understanding and sympathy seemed to be with the Wanderer and he remained quietly passive until the Wanderer could be removed to a more suitable place to rest.

We shuddered to think of the result had an alarm been received during the time the sleeper was occupying the stall with Bill.  Maybe Bill would have shown the same tender consideration and would not have moved, but knowing the almost instinctive coordination in action from the time the horse hears the bell and jumps into his place beneath the harness (a matter of split seconds), I would not have been willing to make a bet as to the outcome in favor of the sleeper.

After that it was not at all unusual to have this poor, unfortunate, drop into Truck 4's firehouse, where he unobtrusively found a bed in the hay loft or the bedding box where straw was kept for the horses.

The Wanderer's last night was spent at the quarters of Engine No. 39, on Geary Street near Scott, where he was found dead n the bedding box one morning.

The Circus Horse

Dan was the original name of a pure white horse, full blooded Arabian, who in later years was known as "The Circus Horse."  He had been at the stable training quarters but a few days after having been bought when on account of a shortage of horses it was found necessary to send him to a fire company.  He was a splendid, handsome, white horse, 1,400 pounds, "as gentle as a kitten" with eyes set far apart as is shown in the picture of Truck Company no. 1, short might legs of bone and sinew that might have felled a grizzly, and a chest and flanks and shoulders like a young elephant's.  He had been rubbed and squeezed and thumbed and grabbed by the official veterinary surgeon the day before and was about to be tried out on a fire apparatus.

In all his life on the green fields and meadows of the quiet farm, he never had seen anything quite so terrible as the gaudy "Thing" of red paint and glittering brass and nickel.   It filled him with fear and terror.   Head thrown high, whites of eyes showing and nostrils red and snorting, he was led forth prancing.  There remained even a more dreadful sight than the fire wagon, the leather maze of black, brass-mounted, three-abreast harness, that hung open and suspended from the ceiling like a huge spider, ready to be dropped and snapped within two seconds.  At the sight of this he would have reared and plunged, but a firm and steady hand held him by the head, a firm and steady voice told him he was among friends and a firm and steady palm patted his neck until at last he trusted himself to be backed under the harness between two veteran firehorses, Doc and Muck. "Center" he was hitched where the dead weight of the five ton apparatus pulled heaviest and where almost all the new horses were "hooked" to show their mettle.

There stood the handsome, kindly beast, trembling with excitement, pawing and tossing his head with fear and ready to jump out of his harness to escape the dread image behind.  From the moment the ponderous, smooth-running machine struck the pavement and the tongue of the bell on the apparatus sounded a note, he was seized with a maddening spasm of fear.  At a bound and with every ounce of might pent up in his magnificent frame, he threw himself against his collar and tried to bolt.  Mouth open and ears laid flat, he struck fire out of the cobble-stones in the street.  Behind him was a heavy Hook and Ladder.  The two horses who were his companions angrily sat back in their breechings and his mouth felt a quick, irresistible pull that threatened to land him on his haunches.  An iron hand drew rein over him as no hand had ever drawn before.  Then came the same familiar steady voice and from the hand along the rein into the blood-red, frothy mouth steadily passed a strange current that ran upward inside the skull, between the eyes where it soothed.

More than an hour the team was driven back and forth for three blocks, stopping now and then to back the huge apparatus fifty feet in a straight line or in curves and describing figure "eights" to test quick right and left turns.  Lastly came the "balk test" to see what the new horse would do if his apparatus was stuck.  The driver drew his whip and tightened his grip on the lines. "Ge' up!" he cried and threw the brake hard against the iron tires, where it clung, with a simultaneous bound the three horses jumped forward and dug their hooves into the crevices of the pavement.  A snap, a sharp crack, a rattle of chains and Dan lurched sharply forward, his whiffle-tree broken in halves.

Despite the heavy load and the brake and the skillful driver, had the horse been other than the knowing, gentle beast he was, there would have been trouble, but the new horse had found himself.  He no longer jumped at the sound of the bell nor tried to pull the whole weight of the apparatus.  Neck arched, head thrown high and the fire of the late excitement still in his eye, he pranced lightly between his companions that brought in the disabled hook and ladder truck, but the new horse was a sad sight when, panting, the team drew up at the firehouse.  His powerful legs trembled under him.  The nervous sweat of fear and excitement had broken out of every pore in his splendid frame and covered his glossy coat with snowy lather.  Every labored breath out of the strong, young lungs was impelled, clear and clean as if out of the cylinder of an air compressor.  The driver took the soft nose of the horse between his palms and stroked it approvingly.

It was seldom that a horse was "broke in" in one lesson, most of them took three or four trips just to knock the scare out of them, but not so with "Dan," and in about a month this horse seemed to know everything that was said to him.

In later years the horse was nick-named "The Circus Horse" as each year he was exhibited at the stock show as being a perfect specimen of a horse.  While being led around in the ring at horse shows and exhibits he seemed to know that he was being admired, for he would strut his stuff in a manner similar to the models in our present day fashion shows.  The firemen claimed that he was also a prefect mental specimen as he appeared to know more about the fire fighting game and other things than did the firemen themselves.

There was sadness among the firemen of Truck Company No. 1 in the latter part of December 1919 when "Dan" was found dead in his stall. It was like the passing of a true and loyal friend.

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